A martial art lesson learned

I went to China in the autumn of 2007 to learn, to meet people and to see places and things. I had in mind to train in martial arts and add to the skill level I had reached after nine years of practicing taijiquan. I had been to China once before on a similar quest and I expected I would be exposed to my weak points once again. I also hoped to gain insight into my potential. As it turned out, I glimpsed what I actually already knew, what I had heard or read somewhere along the way. This time I was renewed with a feeling that I could actually put insights into practice. 

In tai chi there is a learning method we use. You progress from visualization to internalization, from initial exposure of an idea to eventual incorporation into everyday practice. The specifics vary, but I think the lesson I sought had something to do with this: What I already knew, but had yet to place into practice (internalize). 

One event represents the lesson. It’s simple and mundane; but isn’t that where so many of our lessons are—hidden in the everyday? It was the last night of a training trip that my teacher, Master George Xu, had organized. We were all going to be together as a group for the final night before returning to our respective countries and homes. There must have been 60 or more individuals in our training group. We arrived late to our hotel after an unexpected all-day bus ride from our training location. Friday rush hour in Shanghai delayed us by hours. The traffic jams challenged even the most patient person. Once we finally filed off the buses the hotel registration process was chaos. There were not enough rooms even though they knew we would be arriving. 

Many of us ended up at another hotel 10 minutes walk away. We paid extra for a luxury suite, but I never figured out what luxury meant because our room looked just like the standard double that we had stayed in all along on our journey. It seemed that names of things were sometimes more important than substance. 

I took two hours to get a room and finally move our baggage up to the 14th floor. I waited with the bags while my companion checked us in. The lobby was cluttered with luggage and people standing and milling around, lined up for room check in. There was barely enough of an aisle for individuals to negotiate among the mounds of luggage.

Across the narrow expressway where I waited stood Eldrid, an amiable woman from Norway, with whom I chatted while we waited for our partners to procure housing for the night.

After a long day some people were frustrated and short-tempered. Some were ill from intestinal disorders (I do not recommend eating the cold duck). Some, like me, contracted upper respiratory inflammation from the heavily polluted air. I felt particularly bad for two women suffering from diarrhea and who still had to wait for a room like the rest of us. They were too ill to be angry.

Right in the middle of all this, Eldrid said in broken English with a happy, smiling face, “I don’t know why anyone should be angry, they are martial artists. Isn’t this just the sort of situation that we train for?”

I stepped over to her side of the aisle to clarify what she said because of her broken English and because I could not hear well over the din. I knew what she meant, because it rang a bell in my mind and reminded me of something I had read in a book by Carlos Castaneda in which he had asked his teacher, a mysterious shaman known as Don Juan Matus, what he meant by the term “discipline.” 

Don Juan’s answer was “Discipline is simply the ability to face the unexpected with serenity within yourself.” To find a serene heart and clear mind where things don’t go as expected.

Eldrid was correct. This is exactly the kind of thing that martial artists prepare for. It was an astute observation on her part. It was also just what I had been subconsciously practicing. She woke me up to the lesson that I had been seeking. Sometimes you are practicing the principles without realizing you are. You have internalized them.

Looking back on that three-week journey I found a number of similar situations in which my patience was challenged. Some in which I reacted with patience and forbearance, other times with frustration and a fretting mind. 


Everything is movement, movement is everything

Every movement is different depending on its cause for existence. Different intentions, different muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, joints and so on. You could be a carpenter, so you move like a carpenter. A baseball player specializes in different muscles than a basketball player. In taiji, you move in ways descended from tradition. Like everything, it is learned, yet it is natural. For me, the taiji form of movement, is utterly unique in its sophistication. It is so whole body. Its benefits are unique in many ways. One quality of taiji movement: it complements other forms of movement. It compares with dance, ballet, singing. The greatest athletes in their finest expressions are doing taiji—swimming, running, walking, skiing and so on.

The timeless quiet of tai chi

A quiet part of us rests deep within that is aware of everything we experience. It is an ancient part of us, timeless and vast, beyond day and night, light and dark. It seems to sleep while we move through life, going places, doing things, saying things, thinking things, being things. We’ve forgotten it’s there. Taijiquan is a means of recognizing and acknowledging its movement within, of listening to it and reconnecting with it.

Tai chi and living a good life

To live a good life, you need a good body. To live a long life, you also need a good mind. This is common knowledge, but people don’t heed the wisdom of it. We beat up our bodies and minds through the process of living and making a living.

You also need energy, and we are all born with only so much of it. If we misuse it, we live shorter lives, possibly defined by weakness and illness.

In tai chi, we practice bringing our minds, bodies, and energy into alignment so that we may function more closely to the fullest capabilities of all three as a single, integrated unit. When all three are in harmony, our whole being resonates with vitality, agility, and power. We are more sensitive to changes in our surroundings and we can respond to actions around us with more clarity, patience, and precision.

It’s kind of like we, in our totality–mind, body, energy–are both musical instruments and the music itself. We play ourselves, on one hand, but we can also be played by the wind as it blows through us, or by the sun as it shines on us, or by ocean waves as they move us. On an even greater scale, we can be moved by distant sources of energy far in space, like stars and planets or the vast, infinite spaces between them. We can at least imagine such possibilities, anyway. We certainly can be affected by each other as we pass in and out of each other’s fields of energy. If we looked at our total beings in such ways, life would be better because we would feel more energetic and alive. We would live longer and if it turned out not to be a long life, then we would live more fully with the time we do have.

A meaning of “internal”

Different people will define internal in different ways according to their experience. Internal can be described depending on the context and the particular movements you’re engaging. In the context of this post’s topic, I describe it as focusing narrowly on more intricate, or deeper, levels of movement. This practice always leads to the most minute motion deep in your whole being, not just your body. The body is where you point your attention to in the beginning of your practice. But you also have your mind, your “spirit” or “shen,’ and your “Qi,” or energy.

By “internal” I am referring to “life force,” “energy,” Qi, which is what practitioners are trying to connect with. You’re not just learning moves and sets of moves. You’re learning how to feel the energy in any given moment. You’re learning how to be alive in the present moment!

Tai chi practice offers two basic areas of training: learning/memorizing a sequence of moves or form, and cultivating awareness of movement at deeper levels. The first helps to develop the external appearance of movement and the latter develops the internal. Single basic moves allow you to narrow your focus on both in interesting ways. Internal awareness takes more concentration. Not that it needs that much, just that we don’t typically ever focus on that, and require familiarity with it to utilize it more effectively.

At some point, a regular, sincere practice of focusing attention to deeper levels triggers changes in the quality of your movements. Your move may become bigger or more power may come with it. It’s exponential, as in what I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say often “minimum effort, maximum results.”

This idea defies what average people usually think. If your long-held thinking has grown static, shallow, and relies on unexamined assumptions you’ll have difficulty picking up on the more intrinsic details of taijiquan. Understanding this boils down to being free in your movement so that you will adjust to the constant flux of the energy of being alive. Let the qi move your body. Let the mind picture the move before you move at all. This might sound deep or even meaningless, but it fits with what I mean.